Kennedy assassination Warhol invisibility death

Event and Mediality (PDF with illus. and fn.)


Event and Mediality. Andy Warhol’s „Jackie (The Week That Was)“

published in German in: Bilder machen Geschichte. Historische Ereignisse im Gedächtnis der Kunst, hrsg. von Uwe Fleckner (Studien aus dem Warburg-Haus 13), Berlin 2014, S. 357-370. Translation: Daniel Hendrickson

Chapter 3: The Refusal of Visibility

Jackie (The Week That Was) reflects this combination of politics, media, and history. “I’d been thrilled,” writes Warhol in his memoirs, “having Kennedy as president; he was handsome, young, smart–but it didn’t bother me that he was dead. What bothered me was the way the television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad.” Warhol’s biographer Victor Bockris reported how fascinated he was by the repeated broadcasts of Zapruder’s Super 8 film, especially by the slow-motion playback of the shooting passages. From this perspective the title of the silkscreens also now becomes relevant. Whether Warhol found it himself has to remain open; but a label on the back side of the silkscreen attests to it coming from the year 1964. It alludes to a weekly BBC television production that in 1962/63 satirically commented on political events and their protagonists under the title That Was The Week That Was. The program was bought in the United States shortly before its end in Britain. The pilot show aired on NBC on November 10, 1963, the first regular broadcast followed in January 1964. On Saturday, November 23, BBC changed the weekly magazine into a (non-satirical) tribute to John F. Kennedy; this was also acquired by NBC and was already being shown in the USA on Sunday evening. “Jackie. The Week That Was,” as the title of the silkscreen suggests, may indeed be a relation of events, but it is also always already a media product.
The individual steps in Warhol’s pictorial design prove to be equally significant. The focus on Jacqueline Kennedy’s facial expression, leaving out all other photographic information, reflects the personalization and emotionalization of the event, the blurring of the boundaries between politics and Hollywood, through which the Jackies find themselves somewhere between the star portraits of Marilyn or Liz on the one hand and the Death and Disaster series of the Car Crashes, Race Riots, or Suicides on the other. The presentation of the various visual motifs in the identical format of 50 x 40 cm is in turn parallel to the transformation of the real events in the television image, whose screen has in common with Warhol’s panels that it shows the excess of the visible in a never changing grid format.

But above all, what is significant is the arrangement of the sixteen panels into a whole image. For although chronological order is disregarded, it in no way proves to be without structure. As already described, every motif appears doubled as correct and reverse. The order of these pairs of panels is formed as follows:
(for figure see PDF-version of this text)
This can also be expressed as a progression of numbers: One motif is printed twice in mirror images; two such pairs of images are joined into a block of four; finally the sixteen part entire image is formed from four such blocks. This ‘n x 2’ progression is brought into a cyclical form through the arrangement illustrated in the diagram, which has neither a definable starting point nor a singular direction. So in Jackie (The Week That Was) content and form, what is shown and its structuring, appear to be in competition with one another. At on pole stands the photographic reference to the events in Dallas and Washington in November 1963, at the other pole is an abstract, purely immanent visual arrangement, which recalls the non-relationality of minimal art, for instance Donald Judd’s rows of identical boxes or the progressions of stripes in Frank Stella’s Black Paintings, both of which come from the same period as Warhol’s early silkscreens. Coherently structured on its own terms, the visual form at the same time has a quite indifferent relation to the sequence of historical events. Laughing Jackie, mourning Jackie, Laughing Jackie, ad infinitum: the history that Warhol narrates is the transformation of an event into a circular visual staccato, in which content does not determine form, but the cyclical grid structure practically pushes the contents forth. Television is, according to Warhol, “just a lot of pictures, cowboys, cops, cigarettes, kids, war, all cutting in and out of each other without stopping. Like the pictures we make.”
Nevertheless, Jackie (The Week That Was) is far from a simple media critique, whose point would be to declare the disappearance of the real behind the shield of the media. A force is at work in the image that does not get worn away through the repetitions, but is constantly renewed. This force takes its power less from the visible than from the non-visible: from the flaws and gaps in the representational structure that activate the viewer’s power of imagination and still cannot be filled. Two aspects here seem particularly relevant. For Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy became a star in part due to the events surrounding the assassination of her husband, that is, she became one of those mythical figures of the media age into which we can project our inner selves without recognizing anything more in them than their public image. In Warhol’s alienating, dissecting, increasing the contrast, minimizing the photographic information for the sake of the concision of a handful of strokes, Jackie becomes a figure without a base, an “apparition of a distance, however near it may be.” Since Jackie was furthermore always already an image and her life during these four days was always already live, being and media appearance become blurred, with the result that the being of what is shown becomes renewed in full validity in every repetition of the media image. The im¬ages open up a depth for the imagination that they negate at the same time.
The second aspect of the refusal of visibility concerns the peculiarly indirect representation of death. By merely showing Jacqueline’s face, Warhol omits the actual event that gives meaning to the change from laughing to mourning faces in the first place: Kennedy’s assassination. The circular visual structure and the almost cinematic montage force us to a constant re-enactment of the events. In the continuing jumping back and forth between before and after, however, the fatal moment is always lacking, since it is always either still to come or already past. One “repeats instead of remembering,“ writes Sigmund Freud, alluding to the fact that repetition masks what cannot be remembered. What is omitted, however, can return surprisingly in what is repeated. So Kennedy, the actual gravitational center of the story that the images are telling, is granted a single, utterly ghostly appearance. In the space between two panels of the laughing wife, his laughing face also appears, split in the middle and then completed again through the mirror image doubling, albeit in a grotesquely distorted form. This is one of those “incidents on the surface” that Warhol consciously provoked, but whose forms are still randomly produced. What calls forth the surface-incident here is the core of Warhol’s procedure itself: the repetition of images.

Chapter 1: Warhol’s Use of the Documentary Material
Chapter 2: The Media Transformation of Politics
Event and Mediality Chapter 3: The Refusal of Visibility
Event and Mediality (PDF with illus. and fn.)